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"Mission Creep" and Potential Big Brother-like Ramifications

"Mission Creep" and Potential Big Brother-like Ramifications

While we do discuss ways to keep your business more secure, unfortunately, we also have to discuss how to keep yourself more secure against a business. Walmart recently filed a patent that could potentially be used to undermine the security of everyone there, from shoppers to employees. Let's dig into the jargon in the patent to give you a better look at the situation.

What “Listening to the Frontend” Has to Say
The patent, US010020004, illustrates and describes a new method of data collection that could very well never be implemented. Nevertheless, Listening to the Frontend, as it is titled, portrays a concerning picture of how this technology could easily be abused at the expense of customers, and Walmart employees. 

This is essentially a patent that stakes a claim to a specific method of recording the checkout process and the surrounding environment; sensing how many people are in line at a given time, so that another checkout aisle can be opened if needed. The objective is to increase customer satisfaction and reduce costs, or as the patent puts it, “Tracking performance metrics for employees to ensure that the employees are performing their jobs efficiently and correctly can aid in achieving these cost savings and increases in guest satisfaction.” The system detailed in the patent would gather the data required to determine many key metrics, including the efficiency of the bagging process based on audio input of the beep of the scanner and the rustling of the bags, the greetings that employees are using to interact with the customers, and even how long lines are at each checkout by analyzing the distance between the podium and the source of different sounds.

Did you get all that? Despite a statement that states with no uncertainty that this system would not be eavesdropping in on conversations between the customer and the employee, the patent itself disagrees somewhat by mentioning the system’s capability to “process the audio of the conversations to determine whether the employee stationed at the terminal is greeting guests.” It continues by clarifying, “If however the performance metric is based on the content of the conversation (e.g., was a specific greeting used or script followed), the system can process the audio detected by the sound sensors 102 (e.g., using speech recognition) to determine the performance metric.”

Why is Walmart Listening In?
Because there's money involved, the same reason most businesses do anything.

The patent makes it clear that the motive of this system is to gather the performance metrics necessary to properly optimize the efficiency of the point-of-sale, which means that Walmart can get more customers out the door with less of their money left, and by doing so, reap greater profits. Naturally, this is not unexpected. Walmart is a business; of course do whatever they have to in order to make as much money as possible. Even if shoppers don’t necessarily like how it is done, the idea of getting home sooner is a powerful motivation to shrug it off and adjust. If it means that less time is spent shopping, how bad could Listening to the Frontend really be?

Assistant Professor Ifeoma Ajunwa (of Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School) has a few counterpoints. She has recognized the amount of damage that this could lead to down the line.

The problems lie largely in the fact that Walmart’s employees have no union to protect their rights, which means that they basically don’t have the right to privacy in the workplace. Thus, all Walmart has to do is establish that Listening to the Frontend had nothing to do with discrimination, and suddenly, the system can be legally installed without the employees being informed. Now think about anything you may have said about an employer when you thought nobody was listening. But we’re jumping ahead a bit.

For now let’s play this out under the assumption that yes, these systems are intended to measure efficiency. There is another concern that the study that Professor Ajunwa produced with her colleagues, Limitless Worker Surveillance, addresses that becomes very relevant: something called “mission creep.”

“Mission Creep”
This patent recognizes Listening to the Frontend as the idea for a productivity tool, a way of gathering the data necessary to adapt to changing circumstances so that the workflow can be optimized. If a line gets too long, other aisles will be opened up to account for the overflow. Sadly, mission creep could quickly turn an okay idea into a potentially very bad idea; it effectively refers to how technology can have its purpose changed, after it has already been implemented.

So, thanks to mission creep, even though the technology that is featured in Listening to the Frontend is officially designed to evaluate the length of lines and redistribute customers to keep traffic flowing, it could easily turn into a Big Brother-like method of evaluating an employee’s performance while they work the register. This technology could clearly be used to collect the kind of data that could potentially “warrant” some form of corporate punishment.

Did you snap back at a grouchy customer? Suspended. Are your lines consistently too long because you like to socialize with the customers? You’re fired.

How Else Surveillance can Affect Your Staff
Professor Ajunwa had more to say about the impact of systems like these. First of all, while these kinds of tactics are meant to increase productivity and efficiency, the opposite effect is just as likely to happen. It can also make employees feel distrusted and unappreciated, which leaves them less engaged in their work. Guess what that doesn’t help to boost? Efficiency! 

Naturally, Walmart is nothing more than a business, so of course they’re going to try to increase efficiency as much as possible. Nonetheless, there are much better ways to do it than (potentially) secretly spying and evaluating their employees.

A Better Way
Employees won’t be surprised to learn they’re being watched if you tell them about it up front. That would be a better way; make the announcement a part of a prospective hire’s onboarding process, and let them make the decision over whether or not they are comfortable. Inform them, again from the start, of the consequences of abusing, mishandling, or otherwise misbehaving with company equipment and time. Then, once everyone knows what will happen if they slack, stay true to your word.

The issue that Walmart is having isn’t that they have the potential to listen in on their employees and customers; it’s that they aren’t being forthcoming about it, hiding it in the legal jargon of a patent. That’s why people are concerned, more than any other reason.

People aren’t stupid; they understand that there are valid and justifiable reasons for an employer to monitor the usage of their business’ computer network. They know that an employer will want to double-check that they aren’t checking their social media when they should be crunching numbers, or shopping when they should be ordering supplies, or watching some silly animal video when they should be watching a new training. There is a time and place for those things, and the office isn’t it

If you want a fair way to keep your employees honest about their use of work technology, without constantly overseeing them, Macro Systems can help. We have the solutions to help you reduce distractions and ensure efficiency, all while keeping your network secure. To learn more, call us at 703-359-9211.

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